What it's like to be college's top team—and have the season just...end

What it's like to be college's top team—and have the season just...end

USC men’s coach Brett Masi talks about that experience, and how everything is “beyond tennis now.”

Over the next three days, we'll look at how the coronavirus crisis has impacted one aspect of tennis in a particularly cruel way: the college game.

On Monday, Steve Tignor looks back on a season at the top for the University of Southern California men's team—before it suddenly stopped. He also speaks with Joel Drucker, in the #MondayRally, about the communal side of college tennis, and if it can be replicated elsewhere in the sport.

On Tuesday, Ed McGrogan writes about Fairfield University's women's team, which made an unlikely run to the NCAA Tournament in 2019. But in covering the mid-major school this March, he got an up-close look at the abrupt sadness that followed.

On Wednesday, Nina Pantic examines the NCAA's ruling that grants spring-sports athletes another year of college eligibility, if they so choose.

Every so often Brett Masi finds himself thinking about what he and his University of Southern California men’s tennis team might be doing right now—if the world suddenly hadn’t been turned upside down.

“We were scheduled to play Baylor last week, and Stanford and Cal this past weekend at home,” Masi says. “Sometimes I’ll catch myself wondering, “Would we be up 1-0 in doubles? Who would be playing singles right now?”

“We were doing so well. Now you feel like you’re missing out on everything.”

Masi’s Trojan team had done well enough to claim the No. 1 spot in the most recent Intercollegiate Tennis Association (ITA) men’s rankings. In February, USC had won the ITA’s National Indoor Title in Madison, Wisc., and were 13-1 in dual matches. The team was led by the No. 1-ranked singles player in the country, Daniel Cukierman, followed by 15th-ranked Mor Bulis, and 24th-ranked Brandon Holt (the youngest son of Tracy Austin). 

As talented as the 2020 team was, though, that wasn’t what Masi loved most about them.

“What was awesome and refreshing was close they all were,” he says. “There was a real brotherhood on this team, everyone pumped each other up.”

What more can a brand-new PAC-12 head coach ask for? Masi took over the position last summer when Peter Smith, who had led the men’s team to five national championships and 16 Division I appearances in his 17 seasons at USC, announced his retirement. Masi had been an assistant to Smith for four years, and had spent the last decade as a head coach at the University of San Diego and Texas Tech. But this was both a homecoming and a higher-profile job. USC is a historic powerhouse in men’s tennis, with a record 21 NCAA titles. And with an all-star lineup of players recruited by Smith—including two of this sons, Riley and Colter—hopes were high that the team could make a run at No. 22 this spring.

“There’s nothing like being a Trojan,” Masi says. “In a lot of ways it was tough emotionally to take over for Peter, we had been close. But it was exciting to be back at USC again, back in Southern California, back in the PAC-12. I knew the team was going to be good; not many of these guys had lost more than a couple matches.”

Masi says he began to understand what his team was made of at the National Indoors, when they knocked off TCU, Stanford, Michigan and North Carolina for the title—and fought off a team-wide case of the flu to do it.

“That was nuts,” Masi says. “We were all sick, and pretty much just holding on. Holt was a quarter of a human being, he was dying on the court, but he said, ‘put me out there’ in doubles, and they beat the No. 5 team in the country.”

Unfortunately for Masi and his team, they never had a chance to find out how far their shared sense of purpose could take them. Three weeks ago, in the span of a few hours, the college-tennis season was over, for everyone.

“All of it was thrown at us so quickly,” Masi says.

The USC team was packing up to head over to UCLA for their annual away match with their crosstown rivals. At that point, fans had already been banned, “which would have been really weird for that rivalry,” Masi says. A few minutes before they left, Masi got a call from UCLA coach Billy Martin, telling him the match had been cancelled. A minute later, Martin called again to tell him the PAC-12 had been “shut down.” Later that same afternoon, Masi, his head still spinning, was told the whole season had been cancelled. Instead of coming up with a pep talk for UCLA, he had to tell his team their NCAA title dream was over.

“You don’t really have a blueprint for something like that,” Masi says. “I hadn’t even really processed it myself. The team sat there and talked about what each of them meant to each other, how much they’d miss playing together, doing 6:30 A.M. workouts together, grinding in practice together.”

A month later, though, Masi says that everyone understands the gravity of the situation, and that this is about more than anyone winning a dual match or a national championship.

“Everyone seems to be OK,” Masi says, “no one’s deeply depressed. Everyone’s lives have changed so much beyond tennis, and everyone’s problems are so much bigger right now, so you have perspective.”

Still, Masi says he’ll be thinking about what might have been at the PAC-12 Championships, which were scheduled to run through April. And in May, he’ll be thinking about what might have been at the NCAA Championships, which were scheduled to be held in Stillwater, Okla. in the middle of the month.

For now, all Masi can do is wait, though his seniors did get a piece of good news last week when the NCAA ruled that they would be eligible to return in 2021. That’s fine with their coach.

“If could have it, I’d want my whole team back,” Masi says. “We were amped up to win the NCAAs. I’d love to see if we could have done it.”